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“Food miles” appear to have little impact on UK shoppers: Otago research

Sculpture outside Centre for Innovation

Wednesday 7 July 2010 2:46pm

Trolley at supermarket. UK supermarket shoppers appear to attach little importance to country-of-origin as a factor when choosing fresh food items, according to latest University of Otago research.

In surveys of supermarket shoppers and members of the public, Otago Department of Marketing researchers investigated whether the controversial “food miles” concept was an important consideration in UK consumers’ food purchasing behaviour.

The results are newly published in the international journal Food Policy.

Lead author Associate Professor John Knight says that, instead of surveying consumer opinions, the researchers determined what had actually led consumers to purchase what was in their shopping basket.

“Our survey of shoppers exiting supermarkets found that country-of-origin considerations ranked extremely low among the reasons given for why they chose to buy particular fresh food items,” Associate Professor Knight says.

The study findings also indicate a significant gap between what consumers say on the issue and what they actually do in their food purchasing behaviour, he says.

Of the 251 intercepted shoppers outside four different supermarkets, only 5.6% nominated country-of-origin as one of the reasons for purchasing an item and only 3.6% indicated they had consciously chosen British products for the reason that such produce was “less harmful for the environment”.

Price was the most common primary reason given for a purchase (25% of shoppers), followed by brand or variety (23.5%). Other main primary reasons were portion size (12%), freshness (10.4%), the only option (9.6%) and usual/preferred choice (8%).

However, when the researchers surveyed 250 people in UK “high streets” about their purchasing preferences, 21.5% indicated that “food miles” or “the long distance it travels” would stop them from buying New Zealand products.

Associate Professor Knight says the contrasting findings indicate that what people say and actually do in relation to the food miles argument may be quite different.

“This may be due to a ‘social desirability bias’ being at play when people answer questions about their purchasing preferences. When surveyed, people’s opinions tend to give greater weight to societal issues than is reflected in their observed behaviour.”

He says the research team did not set out to examine the validity of the food miles argument, but to find out whether typical UK consumers were concerned by it and whether this was reflected in their behaviour.

“Although food miles have already been debunked as a meaningful measure of energy use in food production and transport, we were interested to find out if this widely publicised concept affected consumer behaviour in the UK, which is New Zealand’s fifth-most important food export market.”

For more information, contact

Associate Professor John Knight
Department of Marketing
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 8156

Website: Department of Marketing

Publication details

Kemp, K., et al. Food miles: Do UK consumers actually care?
Food Policy (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.05.011

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